3 Significant Benefits of Integrated Course (Re)Design

One of the best parts of teaching a course about course design is seeing faculty view prior teaching “challenges” as exciting new opportunities.

In Significant Learning by Design, based on Dee Fink’s Integrated Course Design framework and the Taxonomy of Significant Learning, this happens quite frequently. Although it would be wonderful to share each and every success story, after reviewing course reflections over the last few years, I’ve identified at least three main benefits of this approach that re-energize faculty and could potentially help us all reimagine our teaching practice.

Writing learning outcomes based on the Taxonomy of Significant Learning results in fresh insight about our true goals.

By starting a course redesign process with the big dream — the long-term impact we want our course to have on student’s lives — we can see our course learning outcomes in a new light. Often this process provides a bigger-picture ideal and a sense of inspiration and hope, rather than the often-draining process of finding the right verb and writing out a list of measurable learning outcomes.

What do we truly want for our students? What impact do we want our course to have on their lives? Typically we want our students to develop thinking skills, to be lifelong learners, to care about our disciplines, and to view ideas and perspectives differently. This fresh perspective can transform our outcomes from specific content-focused ideas, to larger transferrable skills. As past participants have shared in their course reflections:

“I learned that I had actually not fully realized that one of the major expectations of my course was independent problem-solving of a novel problem. I got so wrapped up in the detail of content, that my larger objective got lost.”

“Writing learning objectives for significant learning opened my eyes to why I often struggle to make the most effective choices when preparing material… I knew how to choose based on the content knowledge, but I didn’t think about what would give the students insight they could carry with them beyond the course.”

I greatly appreciate the challenge to go beyond foundational knowledge in writing learning outcomes. While I had begun to make some initial progress on learning outcomes related to application before, this course has really helped me grow, develop, and gain new ways of thinking about the broader learning goals such as the human and caring dimensions…Now I see outcomes as integrated and that is a very powerful and valuable shift in my thinking.

Upfront time spent on intentional course design will save time and sanity later on.

We often need to shift gears on the spot during a live class, or we may sense that a particular activity needs more time to truly achieve its purpose. Having our big-picture goals clearly articulated can be especially beneficial when unexpected changes occur and we may need to cancel class, move to a different delivery format, or suddenly drop or adjust a reading or assignment.

This upfront time investment gives us clarity about our end goals and confidence in our teaching methods, so that in the midst of our hectic teaching lives we can more calmly identify which changes and adjustments are most likely to meet our goals. Instructors often comment about this benefit of an intentional course redesign process.

“I found that really being intentional about the learning activities for each level of learning can have a direct impact on what we do as teachers. So why not take the time upfront to do that rather than have to go back and fix the problems after the issues arise?”

“This course revealed that even though I hadn’t ever put my objectives down on paper, my course itself does have strong objectives and I’ve done a good job finding ways to measure them over the last few semesters. I just haven’t shared this outright. I can already tell that this semester will be even more effective as a result of these changes.”

“I’m constantly begging for more time to get things done. However, as I progressed through these activities, I realized that working on a big dream was making me more productive…I instantly had ideas to add to my lesson plans and began to look forward to teaching the course again so that I could make my first day even more impactful.”

Solid course design can help us address the wicked challenges of teaching.

There are always those problematic issues in our teaching that feel enduring, that appear term after term, and that do not feel like they are ‘figureoutable’ (thanks for this great word Marie Forleo). However, working through the situational factors of our course can help us articulate those issues, bring them to light and explore them, and then use them as guide rails as we redesign our assessments and activities.

Do we always have a group of students who are unprepared for some aspect or concept of our course? Do students often fail to grasp the overall impact of a theory or concept? Does the timing of our term, exams, final project, etc., always feel less-than-ideal and stress students out? Do we find ourselves saying, “If it weren’t for…”?

We can do a lot in our course design to create identifiable opportunities for students to engage in the type of learning that will get them to meet our desired outcomes. Certainly some situational factors are outside of our control, but many factors can actually be addressed. And if not, we can at least empathize with our students to show we recognize these difficulties and are on their side to achieve learning.

These can be huge “light-bulb” moments for faculty during a course redesign process.

One assumption I uncovered was that students would eventually see the relevance of this course material on their own. Ha! That is absolutely not happening because I never, ever ask them to do that or talk about it or even speculate. I don’t model it, and I don’t assess them on it. Without any emphasis in the course delivery or assessments, how can students develop this awareness on their own? They are focused on what I am focused on – being able to do the ‘stuff’ I show them chapter by chapter. I don’t need evidence to validate this assumption – what I need is to modify my own thinking to match reality.

I realized I’m so focused on getting students to ‘do statistics’ that I leave no time for them to process what they’re doing or why they’re doing it. I guess I just assumed it will happen. I’m also convinced it does not happen. So, I was glad to face this challenge head-on, as it has really opened a whole new direction for my course to go.”

“Despite making changes to how and what I teach and seemingly working harder and longer hours, students overall, don’t seem to be performing any better on summative evaluations….After taking this course, I have a sliver of hope that if I can dramatically improve how I design learning experiences in my courses, more students will have the opportunity to achieve significant learning, and hopefully…brick by brick…the wall will come down.”

It reinforced for me that, while I care deeply about my students, I need to have more online presence so that they can more explicitly SEE how much I care. One of my biggest take-aways is that I need to explicitly ask the question of how I can best support students in their learning. I think I will re-ask this question at multiple points during the semester.

Designing a college-level course is a difficult endeavor, yet it can also can also be a truly rewarding experience if we take the time to uncover our assumptions, explore our enduring challenges, and articulate our long-term desires for student learning. Too often we do not take the time to be guided through a systematic process that excites us about the potential for significant learning.

Although there will never be a magic bullet, solid and intentional course design increases the likelihood that students will end up with the type of learning we hope for them to achieve. And in my experience, it also re-energizes instructors about their courses!

Previously, I thought of the content of the class as the central thing. That has shifted for me – the content of the class simply supports the larger goal of the bigger learning goals. It is verifying for me how much I enjoy course design!  It is like creating a piece of art!

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